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Episode 44: Rob Rogers and ACT Oxford: Compassion in Action

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Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted Podcast.  This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity, and purpose.I’m your host, Catherine Cowell.



So for this episode of the podcast I'm with Rob Rogers in Oxford at St Aldate's Parish Centre.

So do you want to introduce yourself a bit Rob and tell us a bit about where you are and what you get up to here?


R: Yeah hello Catherine.


My name's Rob and I'm part of a charity that works out of St Aldate's called ACT and we do a lot of work amongst people experiencing poverty.


In the main that would be men coming out of jail who land on the streets of Oxford, or who we've connected with in two of our main prisons around Oxford, which is HMP Bullingdon and HMP Springhill.


We also, at the centre of our provision, we have a supportive housing project which currently has 12 houses with approximately 20 men in those houses.


So my role is to connect people as they journey out from prison or off the streets into accommodation, and along that journey accompany people as they explore faith, take their place in society as they recover from some of the damages that they may have picked up along the way.


My role is specifically in the last three years I've recently got ordained and studied to get ordained.


C: Yeah.


So I wasn't aware that there were two big prisons near Oxford.


Do the men coming out of there, are they generally people who lived in Oxford before, or do they land in Oxford because that was where they were in jail?


R: A bit of both really.


I suppose people will have a connection to Oxford whether that's family.


Other people can't connect back with family, or it might be an area of offending that they can't actually return to, depending on the type of provision.


If they're in Bullingdon or in Springhill then very likely they're being released into the Oxford area and we'll pick them up, either through chaplaincy work or through some of the approved premises here in Oxford, or we bump into them and they come into one of our outreach events on a Monday night, or a monthly Sunday meal, where we open up the parish centre to offer food and friendship and signposting to all the other good provision that's here in Oxford.


Oxford's really well resourced.


I mean there's a fantastic mix of charities doing incredible stuff.


I think part of our role, we feel, is to connect people with the help.


So many people struggle with trust issues and the systems often, sadly, can be a bit broken.


We're a hand-holding ministry really, and we'll hold somebody's hand and take them, maybe that's the doctor's appointments, or to engage with drug and alcohol services, or some of the back to work charities or work with the outreach team here in Oxford to provide extra support.


C: It's really encouraging to hear that there is kind of quite a rich mosaic of organisations that are doing stuff like that.


I was very aware as you were talking that it's not people's normal sort of image of Oxford.


R: No, that's right.


I mean Oxford, the dreaming spires and academic establishments.


But I think like many university towns there are areas of deep poverty.


Perhaps there's an attraction or element to Oxford because there's rich pickings in terms of begging and tourism and all that goes along with it.


I think it's a bit of a history.


Oxford sits at the centre of the country on the crossroads if you like.


So there's always been people passing through.


Sadly there is a hole of homelessness here in Oxford.


So yeah, that's where you'll find us.


ACT being small ways of community transformation.


I think the emphasis will be on building community amongst people experiencing poverty.


We're a faith-based charity so people that, motivated through their faith, following the example of Jesus to connect with people on the margins and to do something meaningful, beyond perhaps handing somebody a sandwich or a hot drink.


We're looking to create a network of support that, again, points to the professional charities that are in and around Oxford.


So really encourage people into halfway to be able to travel out of homelessness if they want that help.


Doing it in a way that is meaningful towards the person, respectful, creating a set of spaces where we can have meaningful engagement around community, really.


Not involved in any real rescuing activity.


The particular events that ACT puts on are around food.


And we're not so much a doing to organisation but a being with.


And although we are involved in a lot of food preparation, lots of the team that actually prepare the food have been men that either live in the houses or have come on a recovery journey themselves and are looking to give something back, and also know the real value of a hot meal in a place where you can, just for a moment, have some human dignity and sit around a table in a relatively peaceful atmosphere.


We will sit and eat together as a community.


There's a bit more of a levelling of the playing field, so to speak.


And one of the sort of passages that really informs a lot of this is from Matthew 25, 40 around "Whatever you do for the least of these you do unto me."


It's a real sense that we encounter Jesus in the people that we serve and as much as we're there to offer a ministry, very often we find that we're being ministered to, and there's a sense that actually there's a gift exchange that goes off around the table.


It's not just us providing a hot meal and a helping hand but often there's a sense of actually we're both learning from each other around a table.


That's the ideal.


It doesn't always look like that.


There are challenges in that, but I suppose that would sit as the spirit of what we do and why we do it.


C: There's profound challenge, isn't there, in seeing Jesus, as Jesus describes himself as the one who's needing the glass of water or the piece of bread rather than "I'm Jesus giving you this meal” but “I am hosting Jesus" is a very different way of looking at it isn't it?


R: Yeah, I suppose something that I've travelled through personally, very much in my early days I probably would have thought that I was bringing something to people and I think as I've been exposed, my own personal journey amongst people, that I was an addict myself, I've been in recovery, I've travelled along that sort of journey, I've had a stint of 18 months of being homeless, being on the other side of it as well.


I think by the Holy Spirit it's just been opening my eyes and I think that then has sort of proliferated through the team and very much a sense that we are here to host the presence of Christ in the poor.


There's something special that happens in that, and then provide the very real sort of practical stuff that goes along with that.


C: Going back to the thing about hosting Jesus, I'm wondering if there are moments that you can bring to mind where you really sensed that moment of seeing Christ in others.


R: Yeah, there was a moment where we had some rough sleepers bedding down in the basement of the parish centre here for a period of time over the winter and there was one man that came in, well he's a self-proclaimed Satanist, he was quite an aggressive character on the surface and came in for a number of nights, very agitated, wouldn't really sleep and one evening he came in, he'd been wandering the streets and we'd noticed that he hadn't actually settled down into sleep and one of the reasons was he couldn't take his boots off and apparently hadn't taken them off for five days, and so a number of people gathered round him and said, "Listen, can we just help you take your boots off, maybe that'll help you settle down to sleep?"


And as they took off his boots and his socks, they were feet that hadn't seen a lot of attention, shall we say, and had been in those boots for five days, solid, got very damp and slightly infected and actually two of the team members came and took a bowl and just gently washed his feet, washed his socks and just tended to his feet and he just completely relaxed and actually there was almost water coming out of his eyes, it wasn't like he was sobbing but just water started to pour out of his eyes and his eyes became really bright and he turned around and said, "That's the most beautiful thing somebody has ever done for me."


But in that moment, there was a real sense of Christ looking back at you in just a moment of real tenderness in the middle of the night, somebody that perhaps you would have been a bit fearful around but I think there was a moment that the presence of God filled the night shelter and a man had a profound moment of encountering kindness in others but we encountered Jesus in him and he went on a really proper faith journey after that and I don't know where he is now, but it was a real moment for him.


So I think those moments of tenderness.


C: I'm wondering what some of your insights might be from having been on the other side of that, from having been Christ to others helping you?


R: Oh that's a really good question.


I wouldn't like to say.


I think I was probably quite difficult and yeah, so I don't know whether people would have seen Christ in me.


I certainly didn't feel like Christ during those periods of time, and I think it's something that you have to have eyes to see and ears to hear, I think. And perhaps that person might not identify with that sense in the moment.


There's something about when you are in need and although I find it and I've found it really painful, actually quite painful to be on the receiving end.


I think it's much easier to give than it is to receive.


So I went on a real journey.


I became homeless after my marriage blew up after 10 years of being a Christian, having faith and then becoming homeless and I found it really painful.


I found it really humbling to be in need.


I remember being in my car about to go and sleep in the woods, and a friend calling me.


I had friends, a network of friends, but I found it so difficult to reach out and actually ask for help, and I remember somebody ringing me up as I was about to go and sleep in the woods.


I'd been working as a landscape gardener for about a number of years during that period of my life.


I had my tools in the back of the car.


I was doing some itinerant work.


I just didn't have anywhere to stay at that moment and I remember a friend ringing me up and asking me about ‘how much soil do I need to cover this garden’ and as I was talking he said "are you alright?"


and there must have been something.


I said "well not too bad" He said "well where are you now?"


"I'm just in my car.


I'm about to have a little..."


He said "well why don't you get over here and come and I can't offer you much but I can offer you the floor and you can come and at least be warm". No one knew that you were in this situation and so I think those moments have actually sort of - it's humbling really and I found over that period of time I was very much in need and to receive kindness actually felt quite painful and crushing and so I think it grew in me a sensitivity around others.


I don't know why kindness can sometimes feel very painful when you're on the receiving end, I think it just sort of shatters something of the delusion that you're all alright and actually, you're a person that's very much in need. 

C: So it sort of potentially opens up your own awareness of your own need and your own pain. 

R: Yeah I think so. I think so. Yeah.

So that is, I suppose, being able to hold people in that space, and I think if you are able to, or at least have the aspiration of, treating everybody that comes in front of you as if they were Jesus, you would perhaps treat them a little bit differently.

C:  The irony of that from what you're saying though, is that for some people, sometimes the very act of providing them with the best could be really triggering and really painful, and could bring out pain, and I know that pain comes out sometimes in ways that are not very socially acceptable.


R: We're aware of that and I think we build not just a home, but a container of support that allows that because that pain has to be processed at some point. I would imagine otherwise it is coming out sideways. You are looking to things to self-medicate that pain so if it can come out in community and there can be a way that can be travelled through and processed. They're not saying we do it perfectly.


There's a whole world of things that go along with that. So careful safeguarding, all of those things, are in place. Because at the base we wouldn't consider addiction as being the problem. We think there's a deeper problem that sits below that. We would say that addiction is probably from lots of people, their solution, and actually we're trying to get a little bit deeper into the root causes of addiction, criminal behaviour, whatever that might be and that's a really deep journey and that's where we see the transformative power of God really. We're quite simple in our delivery.


We're not the experts, we're not professionals, we're a community. If somebody gets sick and they need a doctor, they need a doctor. If they're in a mental health crisis, they need to engage with the mental health team.


If they've got drug and alcohol issues that they can't overcome by themselves then they would engage with the drug and alcohol team, and maybe they'd need a period of time in a drug rehab. But we would hold them around the edges of that journey offering friendship, offering support, offering a chat afterwards. So we're not trying to do anything intervening deeply into people's lives with a set of tools that we don't have. What we're trying to do is hold people in loving community, we're trying to model something of Christian life. We're looking to point people towards Jesus and we think in that pointing people towards Jesus, we're also pointing them and encouraging them to engage in the help for their bodies, the help for their minds, the help that is out there in society, but perhaps there's been a real sense of mistrust, particularly around institutions. So we're trying to do something different, trying to fill the gaps really and hold people in those gaps. There's lots of 12-step AA/NA/CA in and around Oxford, and there's a whole group of people there that recognise that it's only through a higher power that they've managed to find freedom from addiction. So I think what I'm trying to say is that we're trying to just come round as community. We're trying to model family with all the dysfunctions of that as well. But we do have a unique way of accessing a relationship with each other, because we have Jesus, who has forgiven us of all of our wrongdoing, and therefore we have the ability to forgive others. I think it boils down to that for us is that we're a community of the forgiven and we've been forgiven a lot, many of us. I think the Bible is right when it says that those have been forgiven much, love much and there's certainly this sort of passion for loving God, but what that really needs to boil out is how do we then love others, and expressions of that are starting to grow in terms of many of the men who are in the houses coming out as I said earlier, working in the kitchens, providing meals, providing a smile and just a sense of knowing when they're the other side handing over a meal or when they've come down and sat down at the table that it wasn't so many years ago that they're in exactly the same situation. So I think that's something that we really look to and then in the community it's about environmental reinforcement. We're trying to remind people that they've been called, that they've got a purpose, that they have value in that because they have Christ in them, and I think we try and do that with consistent messaging and languages around “listen, you're a child of God, there's innate value” and I think as people travel along that journey I think that's all we can do, I think in my own personal life I feel like I'm just a signpost. I'm a signpost that's been planted here in Oxford, here in St. Aldate's Church, here in the ACT community specifically, to point people to Jesus and to say that there is a hope and there is a future, there is another way and it's certainly been a way that has captivated me and has brought lasting changes in my own life, and living that out in community is something that I find a great deal of fulfilment and joy and all those things that you look for, to live a life that feels fulfilling, and so I suppose that's what we're trying to model in a community setting.


Yeah, and I don't know if this is right but I sort of think the community would be like good soil and I think all the things that we've managed to shed off with the help of Christ and others into that community becomes almost like the good soil for people's seeds that God's put in them to start to grow.

C: That's really quite profound because I think when I've listened to that parable of the farmer sowing the seed and some of it falls on good soil and some of it falls on rocky soil it's often been preached in a way which suggests that it's up to you like what soil you're in but actually it's not, is it?


Like it's not your fault if you land in crappy soil and actually that is the case for a lot of people, isn't it?


That their lives have unfortunately been in really, really difficult circumstances and so yeah, to sort the soil out is a profound thing.

R: Yeah, and I think that's through the consistent messaging and through just the acknowledgement when people get up and tell you that a year ago they were addicted to crack and heroin and now they're completely free and they've reconnected with their dad who they'd had an awful time with and they've offered forgiveness back to their father and there's been a level of reconciliation, and you're thinking these sort of stories that are held in the community are incredible. We're stewarding stories and testimonies within the community that I think provide that soil, because in the soil are all this stuff that people have shared, but there's also a real sense of dynamic hope, and there's not just the soil there's the rain of the Holy Spirit, there's the sunshine. Again, I wouldn't say that we've got this right, it's a bit of a messy business. If you've ever been a gardener or you've got stuff going on in a garden there's a bit of mess around the edges as well but I think there's real life and I think that's the thing that gives us incredible hope is that we have seen people now track through, if you like, the One I think it's Heidi Baker talks about loving the one. We very much would take that on, we would very much feel that the people that somebody puts in front of us we're there to treat as Christ, to introduce into the community. They can either stay or go, it might be just one evening meal on a Monday night. I've had many people come into the community and then it'd be three or four years later they've done another round of jail and back they are again and again, in the houses, they may have stayed into the houses and then go off and I think the parable of the soils, the parable of the lost son the parable of the sheep, the 99 sheep with the one goes astray, all of these things are really live in ACT. I always find that quite dynamic, that you've got the waiting father who waits for his son to go to a far off land, come to his senses and then return and then you've also got Jesus who leaves the 99 sheep and goes after the one that's lost and you've got this sort of tension that sort of exists within the community. 

C: Both of those things are true, aren't they?


C: Yeah, they are.

R:  That Jesus is both waiting for us, the father is waiting for us, but also chasing after us, and I can hear both of those things going on in what you're doing, that the waiting is that kind of community that we'll hold, and the chasing is the loving the one and the encouraging and the walking alongside. The other thing which I've been kind of picking up as you've been talking is something about the narrative that I have sometimes heard kind of explained, and the reality of people's journeys, and I'm hearing that both in your own description of your own journey because you said you've been a Christian for ten years. Well, frankly, Rob, becoming homeless is not part of the standard Christian story, You know what I mean?


It's not what's ‘meant to happen’ in inverted commas. And the other element that doesn't necessarily follow the narrative is that you were talking about the fact that the addiction is not the point. The healing that needs to happen is much deeper than that and actually the reality of people's journeys, you're talking about people who might have ended up back in prison and then back out. So as that deep healing happens, I'm kind of imagining this current of deep healing is going on for somebody but as that is going on, the external stuff like the being in prison or the being addicted or the relapsing is kind of this wave that's going on on top of that but quite often we love a good news story that's simple, don't we?


We like a bad guy that's dressed in black. We like a good news story that says ‘I met Jesus and Jesus healed me of my addiction’ and I think what I'm hearing you say is that actually Jesus is in the business of healing this deep stuff.

R:  He is, he really is 

C: And so the stuff that's going on on top of that doesn't necessarily fit the narrative of ‘you've been healed’. 

R: No, I don't think it does and I think it's this whole long-term thing and I get really fed by a verse, that ‘go and make disciples’. As I've watched my own journey and watched the journeys of others it's that long walk is that, we are saved, we go on being saved and we will be saved, and there's a real sense that all those things are sort of playing out, and I think Jesus' manifesto that he sets out in the Sermon on the Mount, it's all there that we shouldn't judge, judge not because you just don't know God's methods and ways are so unworldly, that Jesus Christ is present in both the guest and the volunteer if you like, and there's a sense of him holding that community.

C:  Yeah, so Rob what were some of the things that helped you to move on your journey your own journey of kind of addiction from having nowhere to live into the space where you are now?


R: Well, it's been a long and painful journey and I think my own personal faith has always been quite vibrant and maybe a little bit over the top, but it's really been the people that God's put around me. I've had to learn that God works through the hands and the feet of other people, it's been others, other people coming around taking an interest in me being prepared to not just ask the "how are you" but to stay in that place of "how are you" a really "how are you" often you'll find us an act asking how you are four or five times again we're a transactional society "how are you" is greeted with "how are you" that's the transaction, it's what you do after that that sets you apart as "do you really want to know" "do you really want to give somebody the space to hear all that's sort of being shut behind closed doors" or a closed heart or whatever's going on so we'd like to think that's the sort of community that we are, and at the same time giving people the space if they don't want to go there that's fine. So for me it's been others and others that have just stayed with me. I'll probably count two or three people that have been around my journey from Daedor and Stilar and those two or three people, they know who they are, and they've been Christ to me. I hope I've been Christ to them at some point, I suppose that's how this sort of journey has sort of developed. I also feel very much myself is that I'm not the finished article. I wouldn't like to say I'm giving any big answers to anybody. Our community isn't the finished article. I wouldn't like to say I could model ACT in another city, it's just a unique thing that's grown up, that God’s grown up here in Oxford. It feels very individual, it feels very context relevant and I feel we're just at the start of something, that's why I think about this idea of hope, and as people come in and connect with us at whatever level that is, we hope that they've seen something of what the kingdom of God might look a little glimpse of what the kingdom of God might look like and give them hope for their onward journey.

C: Yeah, the fact that you wouldn't want to model it elsewhere and that you haven't modeled it on somebody else's stuff from somewhere else I think is actually quite wise. My observation is that sometimes we're a bit scared to do the new thing but actually the thing that's in context, you can be inspired by other people but it needs to be about who you are and where you are and who you as a community are and who it is that you are seeking to walk with doesn't it?


R: Yeah, very much so.

C:  So what made you decide that you were going to get ordained?


How did that journey happen?


R: Well, again, it was a moment of revelation, I think something that sat there for a little while well, the moment that I became, if you like, a born again Christian, to coin a phrase, I thought that the first thing I should do is be a vicar. I don't know why but that's just absolutely crazy but that's the first thing that I thought. Just to put it into a little bit of timeline is that that actually sort of took 23 years to sort of get there but there was this sort of sense of this is, you know, I'm sold out for God and I thought that a vicar was like a disciple, he was closer for some reason would be closer to God. I know differently now, I know we're all the same but different people's callings so I think that sat there and it was called out of me after I'd explored it and a number of different times I think it sat in my flesh rather than in my spirit if that's one way of looking at it, and that had to die off and that took a long time and so five years ago the leader of this church here in a staff meeting had a glassy-eyed moment, pointed his finger at me at the back and said “Rob Rogers”, called me out. The book of Gideon, if you like mighty man of valour, “I see you as a church leader, come to see me afterwards”, and then carried on with the meeting. But it really landed in me really heavily, it awoke something that sat dormant for a really long time. It was interesting, about three months prior to that I'd gone to a big conference in Canada, it was for my 50th birthday and just had a real moment of wanting to meet with the Lord. I went with my wife and had a moment while I was there of saying ‘Lord, I want more of you’ and I heard a little whisper that said ‘Rob, I want more of you’ and I had this moment of being really offended. I was really enjoying the conference, it almost felt like I was all around loving the music and then I felt ‘I want more of you’ and it absolutely wrecked me. I was really offended. ‘I've given all of my life to you, what do you mean you want more of me?’


And then had this real two or three day dialogue with God of going deeper, why I responded with such offence, and here's an old fashioned word, I repented. I turned around and decided that actually yeah, there were things that I was perhaps holding on to, there were fears, there's all sorts of things that I was holding on to. I decided I'd entrust God with those and went on quite a tearful journey with that and landed at a place where I said to the Lord ‘you've got me’ and he said to me, ‘okay I'll take you’ and in that moment it was really gentle and really quiet, but there's such a weight to it that I thought he was going to take me home. So I'd recently got married and I remember going back to Helen and saying to her “Babe, I think, I'm really sorry, I know we've only been married for a year but I think the Lord's going to take me home” and for the first time in my life I planned my own funeral. I'd never thought about my own mortality in that sort of way before but I felt a bit invincible but I'd planned my own, and I really had this deep sense that I was going home to be with the Lord. So it was after this really weighty thing that had happened that three months later I was called into being a church leader so I'd sort of hold these things in very lightly, but very preciously at the same time, and a reminder to me that I'm a vessel and I'm in the Lord's hands and he can do with me what he wants, and I've settled that at quite a deep place. Otherwise I don't think I would have found myself taking up a post in the Church of England, I really don't.

C:  And you ended up doing your training at CMS, the Church Mission Society so what made you pick them?


R: Well again it was more of a happy accident in a way, but it really was something that brought great joy. There's a pragmatic side to it, I live in Oxford, I didn't want to do a great deal of travelling. CMS are based in Oxford but when I arrived and had my sort of induction, I just thought ‘this is God's hand at work again’ and actually I found a space with a group of people completely different from me, across the whole spectrum of people's experiences, but all of them had a shared desire to sort of pioneer something new to go to the people on the edges, to do something on the edges, on the margins, to see God's Kingdom come in lots of different ways whether that was a new housing estate or whether that was amongst yummy mummies in a Gloucestershire village, or whether it was in a prison. So a whole sort of spectrum of different people that would come together with a similar heart to point to Jesus and pioneer some sort of community and suddenly I realised that, not that I felt I was ever on my own but suddenly you meet people with a similar heart doing similar things trying to work out what it was that God was calling them personally to do and then also drawing on all this best practice, this global best practice, people who have done it, are doing it now, have done it through the ages, and all of this learning that you could suddenly then draw on, which prior to that I wasn't aware. So I started to devour the books that were given and also CMS had a real sense of, because I was training in context I continued my work while taking a day out to lecture, and then had to study around that, was that my learning informed my context and my context informed my learning, and that's a phrase that they use and was really true. So suddenly I had a space where I could step back from, if you like, frontline full on ministry into a place where you could start to be informed by other people's practice. Historically other people's stuff that they're doing in a contemporary sort of setting. We went out and visited people in Birmingham, we went to Make Good Course which was entrepreneurial, so everything that we did was theology through a missional lens so for me it was context relevant. I found that I'd squandered my education growing up so suddenly to come back to education as an older man was a real privilege and doing it in a learning community was fantastic so I think that CMS has been a huge gift from God for me and gave me a language to maybe talk to you, Catherine; a way of explaining things which hopefully comes across in a way that might inspire others and tap into other people's desire to follow the Lord and step into what he's calling them to do.

C:  Yeah, so presumably not all of those pioneers kind of go on to become clergy people, some of them just do courses because they want that time out.

R:  They do, yeah, absolutely and I met some really interesting people that just come and do a couple of modules or somebody would do a year of a certificate or a diploma, and then there were people like myself on an ordained track so that mixture and that sort of passion and what I loved was a real space for creativity and I really enjoyed that so I spent some time just drawing together all these different experiences that I'd had and my love for art and creativity and being exposed to all of that. I did some fantastic modules around artistic expressions of the gospel and so I thought it was really good, so there's a real space for creativity and also some really on-point learning and great missional practice, and then also I was given a space to do a dissertation which actually reflected on my practice here around discipleship amongst Christian prison leavers with a focus on the ACT community so I was actually able to apply this learning to a piece of academic work that was really relevant, and I'm not an academic but it enabled me to just solidify some of the learning that had been going on, and I thought that this community became another sort of soil for stuff that had been lying in me to grow and I found them really encouraging yet inspiring really, so I would hope that whatever comes out of ACT, CMS has put something into my personal soil if you like, to see what sort of grows.

C:  So having had that time out to reflect and to study what has that changed in you as a practitioner?


How are you different?


R: We did a lot of stuff around community mapping and being aware of the institutions and to be able to have that, stand back and map out your community, there's some real things that I can bring into that, and bring in community development practices within places like ACT so I think it's hugely informed my going forward.

C:  Yeah, my observation is that quite often people who are very very much on the front line, very very practical, often don't take the time out to reflect, partly because it feels like it's not the main thing.

R:  It would have been, I think I'm an activist and I would have stayed active but I think you just keep doing the same thing over and over and you're not exposed to necessarily doing things different or being encouraged to maybe take a different direction. I've noticed that following the Holy Spirit, if you like, is a little bit like sailing, and that there is a tacking across sometimes when the wind changes or the direction that the Holy Spirit changes. A lot of the idea which resonated with me was about 'misio Dei' about seeing God at work in your community, that God is a missional God at work in your community and I've talked about having eyes to see and ears to hear, and I think looking at your community and asking God for the eyes to see what he's already doing and listening to what he's already saying and connecting with that, and it's so much more life giving thinking than ‘this is a burden that you've got to carry, you've got to be a fixer of people's souls’ when you're not, you get to join in what God's already doing, you get to, it's not like a spectator but it's like a family member that sees to have lift somebody up and do something in their life that is phenomenal.

C:  So having a bit of time to reflect has actually made it easier to see where God is working and easier to follow the Spirit.

R: As we're saying, I think that's what it is for me 

C: Yeah, that's really interesting, that observation that if you're in the middle of doing the activism you can be working really hard at it to make it happen, and I wonder whether there's a little bit of an element of the fact that if you're not there one day a week, you're taking that discipline of stepping back, there's also the discipline of acknowledging that it's actually not your work it's God's.

R:  It is, it is. And those moments where stepping back and seeing that everything's flourishing, everything's sort of gone on, we've gone through a period in the ACT team where we've gone from six ‘staff’, if you like inverted commas, down to three, and actually God's held the ministry. It's flourished and it's grown. We've now been added to, which is a great relief, but there's a real sense that, yeah God really does hold this work, it's not about us, we just get the joy of joining in and I think you need that joy, you hear it in lots of other areas of this sector, people burn out and find the challenges such that it almost re-traumatises them as they do this work, so, yeah.

C:  Yeah, I did an interview very recently with somebody called Siobhan Horton talking about the difference actually between empathy and compassion, and she was talking about burnout and saying that people talk about compassion fatigue, so there isn't such a thing as compassion fatigue, what there is is empathy fatigue, and actually empathy enlivens you to the fact that somebody is suffering and compassion has within it a willingness to be open to suffering but then actually it's about moving into a place of love, and actually your description of that as joy, of joyfully loving people on their journey and not kind of remaining in a place of intense, empathic burnout, but it sounds like having that step back helps you to stay in that place 


R: Yeah, huge.


I found myself completely re-energised, re-invigorated, continue having a daily practice of reflecting really and seeing where God's at and having the courage to join in with what he's already doing here in Oxford. 

C: Which is lovely and exciting. And actually I went to St Aldate's last night as we were in Oxford and it's a big church with a lot of resources and there is something about the gift that that brings if you're doing works


R: Yeah, yeah it does.


I mean, I love St Aldate's. The fact that we are resourced and released to come alongside the people I've just been describing people on the margins, on the edges.


C:  If you just take a moment, I wonder if there's anything that is burning that you feel it would be good to share?

R:  I suppose I'd quite like to share, this is a sort of deeply personal whisper, I'm disciplined around my time with God. I think the evangelical keeping some quiet space with God has stuck with me. It was in one of those moments a couple of years ago. I'm not so much an avid Bible study as I more become quiet and contemplative over the years and that seems to provide me with the eyes to see and the ears to hear hopefully. And in one of those moments a couple of years ago I felt like I was in an embrace with Jesus. No better place to be. And in that moment he whispered to me "Don't betray me" And again, I found myself very much in a moment of real offence I think "I would never betray you Lord, I could never, I've given everything to you, you know I've given everything to you, I'd never betray you" But it's something that I've been sitting with. So much so that prior to me getting ordained we have a moment with the bishop, I went to see the bishop of Oxford and I wasn't trying to sabotage my own ordination, I was so responsible, I might say that, but I just wanted to get everything cards on the table and just say that you know, I'm a person that has the potential to betray the Lord. And I said that to him and I found in that moment it was almost like his bishop robes came off and I felt like I was sat in front of a real pastor. I was sat in front of the good shepherd and he gave me some really wise words and wise encouragement, and essentially said to hold that awareness and ‘actually Rob, everybody has that potential. And as long as you're aware of it that's a good temper to ministry going forward.’ So I don't know why I'm really sharing that other than to sort of say this journey is a really tender journey. And I started out, I felt like I was so filled with the Spirit, so set free, so like a firework that went off. But actually as I've gone on the journey is to realise that you know, I'm a human being with all the potentials and frailties. I mean especially as I go on in ministry that the importance of community. I think why I so love being part of ACT is that hopefully they see the real me. And there's one of our reinforcing messages in ACT is ‘if you present the real you, you meet the real God’. And so we try and model that sense of realness. And I think that's me being real with you today Catherine, is to say that I hold these things and I'm part of something that I feel is really precious and life bringing. And I think it's just an extension of God's kingdom here in Oxford for the benefit of those who are on the margins. And for my joy, I get a joy in it and it holds me in the difficult challenges that there are in this kind of endeavour. 

C: The words that you use there that really kind of sit with me is that idea of being on a tender journey. And you've talked about holding other people on their tender journey and the fact that you too are a man on a tender journey. Sometimes there is a temptation to put people who've been on the kind of journey that you've been on on a pedestal. Kind of like ‘here is the Christian who's been rescued’. And the danger in that is that then there is a false sense of expectation that you need to be the superstar. And you can't show any weakness and actually there's a real wisdom in knowing ‘I am a human being with the potential. With the potential to betray Jesus because I'm just human on a tender journey accompanying other people on their tender journey.’ I think there's real wisdom in holding things in that way.

R:  And I think so often, this is a temptation for a lot of the men that come into the community is that you want to present an image. So present the image of who you want to be and then the trouble is people fall in love with the image. They don't necessarily fall in love with the broken person that sits behind that image. And it's the broken person that needs to be loved, not the image. I think that's a real cause of some of our real challenges is actually creating a community where you can be safe enough to be broken. Without all the mess spilling everywhere because it can be, you know, but there's a place where you can just, you can be who, own who you are. And have a level of reality. That's certainly that community that I want to be part of. And I think in that then the perfect image of humanity is Jesus Christ. If he's been expressed in each other and he's present by his spirit then there's a sense of tangible hope, tangible faith and real love. Which are the ingredients for all human flourishing.

C:  It strikes me that there's a real potential challenge and beauty and resonance between the people that you are walking with who can sometimes be tempted to present this 'I'm now fixed' image. But also there are lots of people on tender journeys who have come to Oxford as students and they're Christians. And they also have a temptation to present this golden image. It's a different kind of golden image but it's the same thing.

R: Yeah 

C: And they too need to be held on a tender journey and I wonder if that community can learn how to hold your people who are coming via the ACT community. Who sometimes slip and fall and as part of their healing, go through relapse. There may be in that there is also permission for the people who've come with all of the best A levels into the best university, who also may not be able to maintain the image. But if as a community, this really disparate community, if everybody has space to know that they are, they need to be held tenderly in their journey.

R:  I think that could be ACT community's gift to the church here and perhaps to the wider church. Because we need unconditional love and we're an opportunity to be loved unconditionally. And to do that you need to tap into the very heart of God. And to do that you need to be willing to receive the forgiveness that you've been given. And to extend that forgiveness to others when they bump up against you. That maybe their reactions aren't quite as polite as you might expect them to look beyond. And hopefully discover that in that Jesus is made manifest and that he is glorified in that somehow.

C: Yes, yeah 

It's being able to be honest about it

R:  I think so, I think so.

C:  And being honest about the things that don't fit into the narrative, like you described earlier in our conversation, the real painfulness of receiving the love of somebody when you were in your car, in your van in the woods. But actually receiving that was quite painful.

R:  I think it's the painfulness of the delusion, the image being pulled down. I think you're starting to go through the pain of that. Because you're holding on to that image ‘I'm acceptable, I'm this, I'm that’. But actually you're not, you've gone through a divorce, you're sat in a car and you think, ‘There's clearly deep things that have been at work and at play.’ My marriage blew up not because of the person I was married to. But because of the seeds of destruction that I'd sown into that at a young age before I'd known Jesus Christ. I mean those things had sat there. And they were going to grow up and become the tares, if you like.

C:  Yeah, so through that journey there has been, as you were describing it, there has been some deep healing

R:  Yeah, there has

C:  There is something very profound in what you were saying about the pain coming from the destruction of that image

R:  Yeah, yeah, I think there is, I think there's some pain to be processed there. But the breaking of that and the presenting of the real you and owning that, I think that then real healing can come, because an image can't be healed. It's only what lies beneath it that desires the healing.

C:  Absolutely, and it's a relief isn't it to let go of the image. It's like, ‘oh, it's much easier to be without it’ R: Yeah, and just to be able to have the permission just to be you and to be in process. It's alright, I'm not finished work, it's alright, I'm in process, I'm still in process. As an ordained minister in the church of England, I'm still in process. And I'm in process with an incredible community of people that are also in process at different stages. I'm not the finished work, but I'm further along the journey than I was. I'm much further along the journey than I was and I can see that and I can give thanks to God for that. 


C: So what you can model as a leader in the church is not perfection and an image. But how do you walk faithfully in process?


R: That's right, pointing to the perfect image of God, Jesus Christ. Because he is the perfect image of God. And that's the signpost part of it, is that you're pointing to the one who is. And the one who comes and lives in us by his Holy Spirit. And it's his Holy Spirit that's worked within us. Shedding the outer vessel, the false image that we present to others. And unfortunately I've presented to God as well. And that he's had to break the pot, if you like, to allow the treasure that he's put in to come out.

C:  It's also though, as you model that, it's demonstrating that it's safe. That it's safe to be in process, it's safe not to have to maintain an image 

R: That's right

C: And as you have the courage to do that, that is part of what creates within your community a sense of safety. And there is no greater safety than knowing that it's alright to be yourself.

R: Yeah, I think so. 

C: Wherever you're at. That's been really good, thank you, thank you so much for your time

R:  Pleasure



Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email You can find a transcript of this podcast at and that’s also the place to go if you’re interested in the Loved Called Gifted course or if you’d like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching.

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